Colville Business Council chair Rodney Cawston testified to the Washington Senate Early Learning & K-12 Committee during a public hearing for several bills.

OLYMPIA – Colville Business Council Chair Rodney Cawston testified, Jan. 29 during a public hearing in the Senate Early Learning and K-12 Education Committee, in support of three tribal education bills currently working through the state legislature.

The bills are SB-6262, an act relating to teaching Washington’s tribal history, culture and government, SB-6263, an act related to the creation of a model educational data sharing agreement between school districts and tribes and SB-6607, an act permitting students to wear traditional regalia and objects of cultural significance at graduation ceremonies and events.

According to committee staff, SB-6262 would require that all school districts incorporate curriculum about the history, culture and government of the nearest federally recognized Indian tribe or tribes into social studies curriculum by Sept. 1, 2022.

SB-6263 would require the Washington State School Directors Association in consultation with tribes to develop model policy and procedure to establish data sharing agreements between school districts and local tribes by Jan. 1, 2021, according to committee staff.

And though he noted the Colville Tribes are in support of each bill, Cawston spoke most specifically about SB-6263, saying, “For the most part, the bill is a very positive step in the right direction and we are very supportive of that.”

However, Cawston pointed out, the bill calls for school districts to work with “the nearest federally recognized tribe,” and that language may omit the Colville Tribes from working with school districts within their traditional homelands.

“On the Colville Reservation, we had 12 tribes that were moved onto our reservation from as far south as Oregon and clear up north into British Columbia,” said Cawston. “Of those 12 tribes, each of the tribes have their own unique political and legal histories. On our reservation, we have three major languages that are spoken. Some of which are completely unintelligible to each other and yet, we have all these children to all these tribes that attend all the schools on or near the Colville Reservation, so when you speak about these bills just in relation to children on the reservation, you know we do have a lot of challenges. Even in the district that I’m from in Nespelem, you have all three languages spoken there. So when we look and think about how we are going to teach the language and culture in a school, that offers challenges for us to be able to do that.

“When you look off reservation, like I said, most of our tribes have come from long distances,” said Cawston. “The nearest reservation, the nearest recognized tribe, is not always going to be Colville.”

Cawston called for a change in the language of the bill that might alleviate this issue.

Both SB-6262 and SB-6263 were sponsored by Sen. John McCoy (D-38th).

Sen. Andy Billig (D-3rd) from Spokane is the primary sponsor to SB-6607, and according to committee staff, that bill would prevent school districts, public schools and institutions of higher education from prohibiting students from wearing tribal regalia or other items of cultural significance as adornments at graduation ceremonies or related events.

Though Billig was unable to attend the hearing, committee chair Sen. Lisa Wellman, (D-41st) shared that the bill came to Billig when several members of his community were in a graduation ceremony and noted how important it was to wear a feather or other symbol that was meaningful to them, but they struggled to get the school to allow it.

“He wanted to enable these students to wear some traditional tribal regalia and objects that were of cultural significance to them because this was a very meaningful, significant ceremony in their lives,” said Wellman. “They wanted to be able to encorporate it into their culture.”

The bill defines adornments as items attached to or worn with, but not replacing the regular cap and gown worn at graduation ceremonies.

“This is a very good bill,” said McCoy, who was primary sponsor on the other two bills. “Over the years, around the state we have had superintendents and principals stop students from walking if they had anything on other than what they approved. It’s been a challenge every graduation year. Hopefully, if we get this passed, they’ll pay attention.”

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